Technology in Criminal Justice: Creating the tools for transformation
Address of Jeremy Travis
Director, National Institute of Justice
Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences
March 13, 1997
I am very pleased to be with you this morning to discuss the challenges of technology that are facing the criminal justice
system. Your invitation to speak with you has provided me and my colleagues at the National Institute of Justice a welcome
opportunity to step back from our day-to-day activities at NIJ to reflect on the role of technology as a transforming agent
in the criminal justice system. It is my hope that the ideas I outline today will accurately convey the strategy that we are
developing in harnessing the enormous power of technology to achieve important social purposes in criminal justice.
Clearly, the technological revolution that is sweeping the nation and the world has not spared the criminal justice system
from its broad sweep. Like other areas of public and private endeavor, the work of police agencies, court systems, correctional
institutions, community groups and the other institutions that collectively constitute our response to the twin challenges
of crime and justice are caught up in the hurricane of technological change. The revolution is moving at such a rapid pace
that breakthrough technologies of yesterday seem commonplace today. Police officers now routinely wear vests that can stop
bullets. Judge routinely order electronic monitoring as a condition of probation. Prisons administer health care without moving
prisoners through the miracle of telemedicine. Community groups can assess the incidence of crime in their neighborhoods with
sophisticated computerized crime maps.
The agencies of government have begun to embrace the promise of technological change in the criminal justice system. Let me
use the federal system as an illustration. Three years ago, the Vice President, the Attorney General and the Secretary of
Defense executed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense pledging the
cooperation of those two agencies to converting the successes of defense technology into new technologies for civilian law
enforcement use. Congress then appropriated over sixty million dollars over two years in the Defense budget to support the
conversions of those technologies. In the Crime Act, Congress and the President agreed that a portion of the funds to support
the goal of 100,000 additional police officers would be devoted to funding new technologies in police departments. Last year,
the Congress set aside one percent of the policing funds of the Crime Act — $20 million a year — to support the development
of new technologies for law enforcement and criminal justice. Congress also funded within NIJ the creation of a network of
five regional law enforcement and corrections technology centers around the country to bring technologies closer to the end
users at the local level.
This strong, bipartisan base of support across the executive and legislative branches of our federal government is strong
testament to our national commitment to bring law enforcement and criminal justice into the mainstream of the technological
The question we should pose at this unique moment in history is, "Whither the revolution?" Where are we headed? How should
our investments be made? How should the breakthroughs of science be translated into the reforms of practice? How do we ensure
that we — not technology — are the masters of our fate?
I would like to share some of my thoughts about these questions by discussing five concrete technologies that can profoundly
affect the practice of criminal justice agencies — the technologies of drug testing, DNA, concealed weapons detection, information
technology and knowledge about what works. You may be somewhat puzzled by that last one — the technology of knowledge about
what works — but I hope you will agree with my starting proposition that, properly defined, technology is a tool, not a solution.
Technology is a way to perform our tasks better. Technology should be seen as a way of bringing science to bear on the problems
of crime and justice. In this sense, knowledge — the kind of rigorous, scientific knowledge that good research can produce
— is our most powerful technology. And, I hope you agree, our ability to produce that knowledge about crime and justice is
also advancing rapidly and we need to ask the same questions about the tool of knowledge — how do we invest in it, how do
we use it, how do we harness it to maximum utility for the good of society.
I. Drug Testing Technology.
Drug testing technology is now commonplace in American society. Its use is far-reaching in many sectors. Airline pilots, police
officers, participants in school sports, even federal employees — including prospective Directors of the National Institute
of Justice — must undergo drug tests as conditions of employment. Proponents of drug testing have advocated that some of the
critical privileges of citizenship such as drivers licenses, candidacy for elective office and even welfare benefits be conditioned
on passing drug tests.
In the area of criminal justice, the availability of a relatively simple, relatively inexpensive and significantly powerful
drug test to determine recent drug use has opened a wide range of issues that reach into uncharted realms of law, policy and
practice. We should dwell only briefly on the rapid advances of the technology itself. Urine testing is quite cheap, can produce
virtually immediate results and has achieved widespread acceptance in criminal justice. But there are limitations — most notably
the relatively short window of detection for cocaine compared to a longer window for marijuana. More powerful — and for the
immediate future more expensive — technologies such as hair tests, sweat patches and other bioassays can detect drug usage
over a longer period of time, often with less intrusion into the subject's realm of privacy.
The potential use of drug testing in criminal justice presents, I would argue, the most compelling case for rapid deployment
of available technology. Consider the following facts. According to the Drug Use Forecasting data gathered in 23 cities around
the country, between half and three quarters of all individuals arrested and held in police lockups test positive for drugs.
Approximately two-thirds of all cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States is consumed by "frequent users", defined
as those who use drugs more than once a week — and about half of them are arrested over the space of a year. Solid research
shows that drug use is strongly associated with criminal behavior. And solid research, conducted in five states, shows that
providing treatment to incarcerated individuals, combined with treatment while on release, is effective at reducing drug use
and criminal behavior by about a quarter. Finally, the emerging research on drug courts, which combine parsimonious use of
the coercive powers of the criminal justice system with drug testing and treatment, shows they are effective at reducing drug
use in a released population.
Taken together, these research findings suggest that interventions in the lives of drug users that build upon the apparatus
of the criminal justice system can reduce drug use, reduce crime, and enhance prosocial behaviors. Given this array of research,
why would we not, as a society, view the incidence of an arrest as an opportunity to intervene to break the cycle of drug
use and crime? Why would we not use the technology of drug detection routinely as part of our decision making processes?
At the National Institute of Justice, we are about to launch a research demonstration project in Birmingham Alabama that will
test the impact of this system-wide approach to the problem of drug use. Called the Breaking the Cycle project, this experiment
will test every arrestee, assess the drug histories of drug users, and then ensure that every component of the system — judges,
jail and correctional officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys, treatment providers and pretrial release agencies — work
together to reduce drug use. This is not a diversion program, not a drug court, not a prison treatment program — this is a
system-wide approach that essentially adopts a public health perspective and views drug abuse in the arrestee population as
a presenting condition that should be the concern of every component of the criminal justice system. There are conceptual
similarities between the Breaking the Cycle demonstration program and other initiatives at the federal level. Starting this
year, 24 districts in the federal criminal justice system will adopt policies of universal drug testing for all arrestees
as part of President Clinton's initiative. New federal legislation requires states to develop policies for testing inmates
and parolees according to guidelines promulgated by the Justice Department. Congress made $25 million available to the States
as part of the Byrne Program to fund these new programs. The Crime Act provides for significant expansion of the numbers of
drug courts. These federal initiatives parallel the increased use of drug testing and treatment funded at the state and local
All of these innovations have at their core a powerful concept and a powerful tool. The tool is drug testing; the concept
is that this knowledge about drug use can assist the criminal justice agencies in making better informed decisions about interventions
that will reduce drug use and enhance public safety.
II. DNA Technology.
Another powerful new technology is DNA. DNA allows us to match a biological sample to an individual at a mathematical level
that approaches absolute certainty. DNA tests are now frequently used and DNA evidence is admissible in almost all jurisdictions
around the country. We are aware of the high profile cases — O.J. Simpson, Sam Shepherd. We have seen the potential of DNA
to demonstrate the fallibility of the criminal justice system. At the request of Attorney General Reno, the National Institute
of Justice recently published a book describing 28 cases in which DNA results were used to exonerate individuals who had been
convicted of serious crimes. Entitled "Convicted by Juries; Exonerated by Science", this book presented compelling human stories
of 28 men who had served an average of seven years in prison only to be released after the science of DNA showed that they
were innocent. Each of them had protested his innocence; most had alibi witnesses; all had taken their cases to jury verdicts;
all had been convicted on other evidence such as eyewitness testimony and other forensic evidence. Yet when the DNA results
became available, their claims of innocence were finally sustained. We have much to learn from these cases about the intrinsic
weaknesses in our system of justice
What does the future of this technology hold? Certainly, DNA will continue to be used more frequently to eliminate innocent
suspects from criminal investigations, presumably much earlier in the process. More powerfully, DNA will be used to convict
defendants who are now not convicted. Let's imagine a world in which DNA is used as frequently as fingerprints are used now.
It is a radically different criminal justice system. Within the next three to five years, with NIJ funding, DNA science will
advance to the point where portable DNA labs can be taken to crime scenes, and multiple samples can be tested simultaneously,
with virtually immediate results, at relatively low cost. These results will then be run against an ever increasing DNA database
of offenders that will enable the police and prosecutors to match samples and more rapidly include and exclude suspects. What
will be the impact of this capability upon crime scene work? On the use of photo arrays and lineups? On prosecutorial charging
decisions? On plea-bargaining? On jury trials? On appellate practice? The mind literally cannot fathom the widespread repercussions
for our system of justice.
Over the next few years NIJ hopes to examine these implications by convening a group of scientists and practitioners to ponder
the future of DNA. We hope to develop a vision of the technological and laboratory infrastructure that will be needed to realize
the potential of DNA. But this much is known: the technological revolution is upon us and we are not ready.
III. Concealed Weapons Detection Technology.
Two years ago, James Q. Wilson, writing in the New York Times magazine, in an article entitled "What to do about Crime?",
asked why this nation, with its renown technological capabilities, could not develop technologies that would detect concealed
weapons. President Clinton circled that paragraph, sent it to Janet Reno with a note asking Why not? She sent it to me, and
we funded three separate promising technologies that would detect concealed weapons. Since then, a total of nine separate
technologies, using different scientific approaches, have been launched, some of them funded under the Crime Act, some of
them funded in the Defense Department. Within the next two years, some of the most promising new technologies will be ready
for field testing in real world environments. We can predict that within a decade, police officers, court security officers
and other enforcement officials will be able to ascertain whether an individual is carrying a firearm.
Again, the implications of these technological developments for everyday practice are stunning. Imagine that a police officer
had available a hand held device that could, at relatively short range, ascertain whether a suspect was armed. When would
we want that police officer to use such a device? What would be the legal threshold for its use? How would this technology
be used in a world where carrying concealed weapons is often legal? Can we imagine a practice of "gun stops" that would resemble
DWI stops that are now commonplace? Would public events such as rock concerts be routinely accompanied by sophisticated weapons
detection apparatus? Would schools routinely have entrances that incorporate unobtrusive weapons detection systems? How would
we balance our concerns for public safety with our nation's respect for privacy and our constitutional safeguards against
These questions need to be debated before the technology overtakes our policy deliberations. At NIJ we are committed to promoting
these discussions, but I encourage the members of the audience to engage in that discussion as well, just as we have begun
a national dialogue on drug testing and DNA.
IV. Information Technology.
In many ways, the technological revolution that is most familiar to us is the information revolution. With the click of a
mouse, we can enter the libraries of the research institutions of the world, retrieve a document in foreign language, have
it translated into English, and print it in our home. Police officers responding to a 911 call can access the crime history
of a particular location, check the background of a particular suspect using fingerprints, fill out what we used to call paperwork
in the squad car by using a hand-sized computer, and return to patrol. Probation officers can track the movements of probationers
using electronic monitoring devices; victims of domestic violence or stalking can be alerted when monitored individuals get
within a specified range; community groups can access computerized crime maps to understand the patterns of crime and disorder
in their neighborhoods; investigators can quickly scan hundreds of databases to learn about the most intimate details of people
These new capabilities pose new challenges to the criminal justice system. Some of those challenges are familiar to us — such
as how to balance privacy concerns with the need to conduct criminal investigations — yet these challenges are magnified by
the sheer reach of the new information technology. I think the more difficult challenges lie in a different direction. We
need to ask ourselves how information technology fits into and supports emerging principles of criminal justice. For example,
we should ask how information technology can support the problem solving efforts of community policing? How can information
technology help move decision-making in criminal justice to the front line of practice so that employees, including police
officers, probation officers, judges and service providers can make better decisions, exercising more discretion, and finding
job fulfillment? How can we use information technology to bridge the divide between the government agencies of policing and
criminal justice and the citizens they serve? Can access to information increase public accountability for the processes of
criminal justice that have lost public confidence over the past decades?
In short, we must remember that technology should not become the driver of change, rather should be view as a tool for transforming
criminal justice in ways that will enhance both our capability to control crime and our need to secure justice in ways consistent
with our democratic values. Last week, the National Institute of Justice and the office of Community Oriented Policing Services
in the Department of Justice announced the award of $4 million in grants to develop technologies that support community policing.
We hope to create partnerships between the nation's technology industry and progressive police departments to bring new science
to support reforms in our approach to policing. We plan to continue this approach over the years to come.
V. The Technology of Knowledge.
Those in the audience who remember the era of the Law Enforcement Administration will recall the phrase "technology transfer"
— which did not refer to traditional definitions of technology, rather captured the idea that important insights into ways
to improve practice in policing and criminal justice should be shared from one jurisdiction to others around the country.
We should still view knowledge as the most powerful technology — and we should not lose sight of the importance of developing
the most powerful knowledge about what works and what doesn't. This is the role for the research community that is represented
at this conference — and I want to close my remarks by calling upon our community to take seriously our obligations to produce
the most powerful knowledge. We are all puzzled from time to time with the difficulty of translating research into practice
and policy — we often wonder why we are not making more progress in developing new approaches to the twin challenges of crime
From our perspective within the National Institute of Justice, we are looking for opportunities to enhance our knowledge by
raising the stakes and the standards of the research endeavor itself. We are looking for opportunities to test new ideas with
the most rigorous scientific methods at our command. Said differently, we are looking for the communities of research and
practice to develop proposals for rigorous field experiments, for research demonstration projects, that test interventions
that are solidly based in research, that explicitly set out to test research hypotheses, that employ the most rigorous scientific
methods — preferably random assignment where possible and appropriate — that envision replication to test preliminary findings,
and that are conducted in a manner that will have greatest implications for practice around the nation. The Breaking the Cycle
project in Birmingham is such an effort — and we are hopeful that we can fund replications of that project in adult and juvenile
systems over the next two years. At NIJ, we are now developing a research demonstration project that will test interventions
that will break the cycle of violence that puts abused and neglected children on a track that results in increased levels
of delinquency and criminality. We are actively considering design of similar efforts in the area of batterers and sex offenders.
In short, we are challenging ourselves, the research community, and the community of innovative practitioners to come up with
the most powerful ideas that will significantly advance knowledge and practice and then test those ideas in the complex arena
of the real world. This technology — the development of powerful new paradigms — will ultimately provide greatest service
to our society's efforts to prevent and control crime and achieve justice.
So, yes, we stand at the forefront of a revolution in technology. Yet this revolution presents the same issues that other
technological advances have presented in the past. We must keep our values foremost in our minds as we integrate technological
advances into day to day practice. We must see new technologies as partners in our efforts for reform, not as masters of our
fate. We must be willing to abandon old ideas as new ones evolve from possibility to reality. We — particularly those of us
engaged in the research enterprise — must be willing to be constructive critics, challenging those new ideas objectively while
recognizing that our independent critiques should still be supportive of the willingness of practitioners to take risks on
our society's behalf that may, if successful, benefit the larger community.
Date Created: November 28, 2007